Talking About Proposals to Change the 14th Amendment

While anti-immigrant groups have long proposed amending or reinterpreting the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship, the issue gained new visibility lately when Arizona Senator John Kyl proposed hearings on the subject and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, among others, expressed support. In this moment, there’s a need and an opportunity to promote preservation of the 14th Amendment and it’s principles, as well as positive approaches to immigration reform. In doing so, communications research and experience suggest the following principles:

  • Emphasize values. This is a debate about what our country stands for and what it means to be an American. Facts are important, but they should be communicated within a values frame. Here, the relevant values relate to our constitutional freedoms and protections, and to the moral and practical instability that eroding them would cause.
  • Remind audiences that this is about all of us. Frame the debate in terms of the 14th Amendment’s importance to all of us and our nation as a whole, not just in terms of immigrants specifically. We all value the guarantee that our U.S.-born children will unquestionably be citizens of the United States of America.
  • Use the pro-immigrant “Core Narrative” themes developed and used by leaders and groups around the country: workable solutions, upholding our nation’s values, and moving forward together. Workable solutions speaks to Americans’ desire for pragmatic and effective approaches, and their recognition that rash anti-immigrant proposals are unrealistic. Upholding our nation’s values reconnects the immigration discussion to the kind of country we aspire to be. And moving forward together highlights the ways in which immigrants are a part of us as a nation and already contribute to our economy and culture.
  • Remember that most Americans are unfamiliar with the content or history of the 14th Amendment. We should not assume specific knowledge about the Amendment on the part of our audience, but can help shape their understanding of the provision and its importance.
  • Don’t waste time “myth-busting,” which research shows tends to reinforce the idea you’re trying to combat. For example, don’t appear to accept the premise that immigrants come here to have children, but don’t get mired in arguments about this fact—pivot and return to your affirmative point.

Sample Talking Points

“There’s no evidence that this is even happening in any real way, but more importantly, we can’t undermine who we are as a country and as a people for short-term political purposes. Instead of tampering with our Constitution, let’s move forward with commonsense immigration reform that’s languishing in Congress.”

“In addition to being wrong for America, this is not a realistic proposal. Even if two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states were to somehow agree on this, it would visit unimaginable difficulty on all 300,000,000 of us who are American citizens. Today, when your kids are born here, you know, and everyone knows, that they are American citizens. But what if when your child was born you had to go through an application process, prove to federal, state, and local bureaucracy that you are a citizen, be entered in a database that is subject to error and delay? It would be expensive, burdensome, slow, inaccurate, and totally unacceptable to the American people.”

“These members of Congress have clear, practical options for fixing our broken immigration system through commonsense immigration reform. We need smarter control of the border and a system for the 12 million undocumented immigrants who live here to pay all taxes, learn English, register, and begin an orderly path to citizenship. That’s what Congress should be focusing on.”

"The 14th Amendment was and is crucial to making us one nation, indivisible. Decimating that principle would be a grave mistake, and would threaten the freedom of all Americans."

Public Opinion

A sample of public opinion findings on this subject shows a public that leans against citizenship based on birth in the U.S. for the children of undocumented immigrants, but largely opposes amending our Constitution to eliminate that practice. In addition, few Americans are familiar with the text or history of the 14th Amendment.

  • A June 2010 Pew Research poll found that only 41% of Americans favor changing the Constitution to prevent children from automatically becoming U.S. citizens at birth if their parents are not in the country legally, while 58% favor leaving the Constitution as it is.
  • When asked their views on changing the Constitution generally (not specific to birthright citizenship), in a Rasmussen poll released in July 2010, 62% of Americans said the Constitution should be left alone, while 24% believed minor changes are needed and only 7% saw a need for major changes.
  • Outside the context of amending the Constitution, however, birthright citizenship receives less support. In a June 2010 Rasmussen poll, 58% of U.S. voters surveyed said a child born to an “illegal immigrant” in the U.S. should not automatically become a citizen of the U.S., while 33% said that the child should automatically become a U.S. citizen. In terms of party affiliation, 52% of Democrats support birthright citizenship when the question is asked this way, while 76% of Republicans and 60% of independents oppose it.
  • The 14th Amendment itself is not well understood by Americans. In a 2005 survey conducted by a civil rights organization, only 10% of Americans were able to name a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Most named equal opportunity, while fewer said due process and a handful mentioned federal authority over the states. Citizenship based on birth in the U.S. was not mentioned by a significant number of respondents.
  • Finally, although we have not seen any opinion research on it, the term “birthright citizenship” seems likely to put off some persuadable audiences, because it connotes an immediate demand for rights by people who they perceive to be lawbreakers. Our preliminary recommendation is to focus on “children born in United States” and “citizenship based on being born here in America,” rather than repeating the phrase “birthright citizenship.”

Additional Facts and Resources

  • The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868, out of the blood and devastation of the Civil War, in which over 600,000 Americans died. It was part of the “Reconstruction Amendments”—passed between 1865 and 1870—which also include the 13th, (abolishing slavery) and the 15th (recognizing the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”).
  • Section 1 of the 14th Amendment provides that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
  • Although the 14th Amendment and its citizenship clause were directed primarily at ensuring the citizenship of formerly enslaved African Americans (overturning the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision to the contrary in Dred Scott v. Sandford), there is no question that the Framers of the 14th Amendment considered and intended to include the U.S. born children of immigrants not lawfully in the U.S. The question was debated, and delegates who sought to exclude those children (primarily the children of Chinese immigrants) from U.S. citizenship lost the debate.
  • The United States Supreme Court, in the 1898 case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, held that the U.S.-born children of immigrants who were themselves ineligible to become U.S. citizens (in this case because of the Chinese Exclusion Act) were automatically citizens of the United States under the 14th Amendment.
  • The phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” in the clause excludes from automatic citizenship U.S.-born children of diplomats of foreign countries, who generally have immunity from our laws, and children born to enemy forces engaged in hostile occupation of the country’s territory.
  • The Immigration Policy Center has assembled a large body of resources and materials on the 14th Amendment citizenship debate.